Ahebi Ugbabe’s life story is to me, equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because Ahebi Ugbabe was a woman ahead of her time, and her story provides incredible insights into pre-colonial Igbo attitudes towards gender and sex. And frustrating because of the exact same reason; that is pre-colonial Igbo attitudes towards gender and sex. Ahebi Ugbabe was a woman who rose in the dawn of British colonialism of what is now Nigeria, to become a female king to a people who did not have autocratic rule, and a female headman and warrant chief to the British colonial forces. She was a woman who became a man as Igbo society allowed, ruled as a man with the support of foreign powers, until the elders of the society thought that she had gone too far and essentially re-transformed her to a woman.
By gathering several oral histories about her character, Nwando Achebe paints a very detailed and amazing picture of a defiant woman who challenged established ideas of how much a woman could become a man. As a young girl, Ahebi Ugbabe fled to Igalaland for two apparent reasons. One was to escape being forced to marry the goddess Ohe as a punishment for crimes her father had committed in Enugu-Ezike. The other may have been due to being raped, and then possibly being forced to marry the man who raped her and fathered her child. It may have been a combination of these reasons that lead to a Ahebi Ugbabe fleeing to Igalaland as a teenager.
In Igalaland, Ahebi Ugbabe turned to sex work, this gave her enough finances to set up a trade, and also access to important and powerful people such as Attah Igala, the King of the Igala, and some European colonists, both of who aided her in realising her ambitious goals as a ruler. Her activities, as a trader and sex worker, gave Ahebi Ugbabe economic power and political influence.
After establishing herself as a person of influence and affluence, Ahebi Ugbabe acted as an informant to the British by leading the British invaders to Umuida and Ogrute. It is still uncertain what Ahebi Ugbabe’s motives in aiding the British were, Achebe suggests that she used the British to enact revenge on the people whose customs had caused her to flee from her home at a young age, or possibly to remove the institution of deity marriage and domestic slavery which the British used as justification for colonialism.*
In return for her aiding them, and in recognition of Ahebi Ugbabe’s linguistic skills (she was fluent in Igbo and Igala, and pidgin English with which she communicated with the British colonialist), Ahebi Ugbabe was given political offices by the British. First as a headman, then as a warrant chief in 1918. The headman was an agent of the British who controlled the wards that comprised villages, while the warrant chief was the indigenous leader who ruled the people in place of the British in the indirect rule system. In Igboland which was decentralised and gerontocratic, warrants (basically pieces of paper) were given to men who rose to claim positions as heads of their communities. Although Ahebi Ugbabe’s high political office was not so strange in Igbo political life in which women could attain high levels of powers, she was apparently the only woman in colonial Nigeria, and perhaps British Africa to fill these offices. In occupying these roles (of headman and warrant chief), Ahebi Ugbabe’s authority was okayed by the British and grudgingly accepted by the people of Enugu-Ezike. Similarly Ahebi Ugbabe’s becoming a king was sanctioned by the Igala.
Ahebi Ugbabe was made king by Attah Aliyu Obaje, she was initiated into the sacred throne of the attah and had her ears pierced as all attah (rulers of the Igala kingdom) do in remembrance of the earliest female King Ebulejonu, Ahebi Ugbabe was then given a beaded crown, a horsetail that marked her station, beads to wear on her neck and wrists, a black fowl to sacrifice to her chi, and a staff that signified male kingship. This initiation is not so strange when you consider that in pre-colonial times, the official title of eze was one given by the attah, and that all ezes were required to make a pilgrimage to Igalaland. Achebe mentions Igala pioneers that may have inspired Ahebi to pursue a female kingship, such as Attah Ebulejonu, a female king of the Igala who is said to be a woman born of a half-human, half-leopard father, and who ruled as a Female King; Princesses Inikpi who buried herself alive, along with nine of her slaves as a willing sacrifice to help safeguard the Igala kingdom in a time of war, and who afterwards was elevated to become a goddess; and Oma Idoko who was similarly sacrificed, although unwillingly.
The Igbo pre-colonially practised a gerontocracy and believed in leadership by merit, power was shared between male and female elders in a complimentary fashion, yet Ahebi Ugbabe ruled autocratically. Her subjects, the people of Enugu-Ezike were compelled to recognise Ahebi Ugbabe as king because she had the Attah and the British behind her and supporting her. Ahebi Ugbabe soon became known as a greatly feared ruler, she was bestowed titles that were usually the reserve of male kings and chieftains, along with titles solely for exceptional women and women who had transformed themselves into men. Ahebi Ugbabe was praised both as an exceptional woman and an exceptional man.
And as a man, Ahebi Ugbabe’s treatment of women followed society’s taboos. She had a masquerade house in her palace that women were forbidden to enter. She slept surrounded by young virginal girls, teenagers and women were not allowed to sleep near her following the belief that menstrual blood was contaminating. Ahebi Ugbabe married several women, and several slaves one of whom she adopted as her own son. Her palace was a sanctuary for women who ran from abusive husbands, and Ahebi Ugbabe married some of the women who decided not return to their husbands. At the same time, her palace was a kind of corrective facility for “difficult” wives. Men sent their wives to King Ahebi’s palace and paid her to deal with their stubborn wives, until they became softened and were ready “to live in peace and harmony with their husbands”. King Ahebi’s palace was a sexually liberated place, her wives not only had as many lovers as they wanted to, but they were apparently also encouraged to sleep with her important male visitors. Thus the women in her palace lived as free women and sex workers. There was also a coed school in King Ahebi’s palace at a time when it was rare for girls to be educated.
There were several people who were not happy with King Ahebi. Particularly the male elders who were upset with her disregard of traditional leadership and elders, her autocratic rule, her reception of bribes and the manner she forcibly took away men’s wives. However they tolerated King Ahebi until she did the unthinkable, she tried to own a masquerade. Masquerades are believed to be the ancestors come back to the land of the living, they enforce the laws of the community and are agents of social control. They were also the domain of a solely male secret society and in a society where gender and sex were fluid, ownership of, and the ability to control a masquerade differentiated the male from the female. Only cis-gendered men who were initiated into the masquerade secret society were allowed to control masquerades. Ahebi Ugbabe was a female king and a female husband, and indeed she was treated as a man in her community. Yet when King Ahebi came out with a masquerade, this was considered the ultimate insult and disregard of society’s rules.
Ultimately, King Ahebi fell from grace when the British betrayed her by not supporting her when she took the male elders to court after they object at her masquerade. The British resident who presided over this dispute, concluded that Ahebi Ugbabe did not have the right to control a masquerade as she was a woman. With the British no longer backing her, Ahebi Ugbabe’s influence significantly lessened, people stopped attending her court and her market. Now the British sought to reconnect with the male elders they had previously ignored, and with this the male elders were free to force Ahebi Ugbabe’s re-transformation into womanhood.
She still retained considerable influence and wealth until she died in May 1948. Today most people do not know about King Ahebi and her legacy, however she lives on as she was transformed into a medicine by one medicine man, and then to a goddess who sees and reveals the unknown.
* Interestingly, although Ahebi Ugbabe may have been unique in Britain’s African colonies as a woman who became a headman and then warrant chief, she was not the only African woman who acted as an informant to aspiring colonial authorities. More on this in future posts.
What I Read
Achebe, Nwando (2011), The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Indiana University Press
Listen to Nwando Achebe talk about her research and King Ahebi here.